Buried items often come to light in archaeological investigations, or during the renovation of old buildings, that reveal the beliefs and superstitions of the people who built and lived in them. Animal remains, shoes and written charms are common, and witch-bottles are a well known phenomenon. Such items were placed for ‘apotropaic’ reasons – to prevent evil or attract luck (from the Greek apotropaios – to ‘ward off’). Witch-bottles were placed in or under houses to protect the occupants from some supernatural menace, to guard against ‘overlooking’ by someone regarded as a witch, their familiars, or perhaps fairies or spirits. Witch-bottles were created by village wise men and women to directly counter witchcraft. Unsurprisingly there was a distinct peak in their use during the time of the witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is not known whether this was common practice before this time, as so few buildings survive from before the Tudor period. Most often a Bellarmine jar – a brown stoneware jug embellished with a face (said to caricature Cardinal Bellarmine) was used. Bellarmine was a particularly unpleasant Jesuit inquisitor who forced Galileo to deny his heliocentric beliefs in 1616. The contents were believed to do harm to, as well as to represent, the witch that had cursed the household – commonly bent pins, thorns, human hair, eyelashes and nail clippings, blood, and almost always, urine. These would be boiled to diminish the witch’s powers, and then sealed in the bottle which was hidden in the home of the affected person. Occasionally a written charm in a bottle was considered sufficient. The witch-bottle shown here, along with its contents, is at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle. Dorset examples include one found in 2000 in a boundary wall at Langton Matravers – possibly to protect cattle, as its contents included beef tallow. It has been dated to the mid-18th century, a time when parish records show that distemper was rife among cattle in Dorset. Others have been found in houses in Cheselbourne, Sixpenny Handley, Sturminster Newton, Stalbridge, Worth Matravers and Winterborne Kingston. Of the latter, Marianne Dacombe wrote in 1935: “A bottle was found hanging by a wire up in the old chimney, and when it was cut down was found to contain liquid. “It was tightly corked and the cork stuck all over with pins. After the bottle was broken and the liquid spilled the family had nothing but bad luck and finally left the place. The bottle is supposed to prevent bad spirits entering the house.”

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